"You hate to regulate everything, but if they're not going to do it, doggone it, we ought to make them," Sen. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat whose father was a coal miner, said during that Jan. 23, 2006, committee hearing.
The same day as the Senate hearing in Washington, West Virginia lawmakers had passed their own bill to require new communications and tracking equipment.
Under that law, mine operators were required by July 2007 to submit plans for new wireless communications and tracking systems. But the state law did not set a firm deadline for when mine operators must have these systems actually installed and working.
In Washington, Congress did not pass a new safety law until after a third 2006 disaster, the May explosion at the Kentucky Darby Mine that killed five miners.
The federal MINER Act tried to set a hard deadline of June 2009 for mine operators to have emergency response plans that included wireless communications and tracking systems. But, the law also gave mine operators a loophole, allowing "alternative means of compliance" if companies argue they can't meet the MINER Act standards.
Watzman, the National Mining Association lobbyist, said lawmakers and the public had unrealistic expectations for communications and tracking equipment. Gear that would work in the harsh environment of underground mines had not yet been developed, and required years of testing, Watzman said.
But, Watzman said, mining operators and equipment vendors were hampered when MSHA took too long to provide concrete guidance for complying with the MINER Act and, even then, gave the industry conflicting information. And, he said, there have been delays in getting new equipment certified by MSHA for use in underground mines.
In April 2008, a U.S. Government Accountability Office report agreed that MSHA's guidance had caused delays. At the same time, House Labor Committee Chairman George Miller, D-Calif., complained MSHA was allowing "ambiguity" in the meaning of the word "wireless" to delay installation of new equipment.
Then, on Jan. 16, 2009 -- four days before President George W. Bush left office -- MSHA issued a policy that concluded "fully wireless communications technology is not sufficiently developed at this time," allowing the industry to avoid that MINER Act requirement.
Earlier this year, Louviere said that MSHA chief Joe Main, a former UMW safety director, had no plans to revoke that policy.
Dennis O'Dell, current safety director for the union, said he believes MSHA should revise the policy to "include language that forces mine operators to push manufacturers to develop increasingly better devices to fulfill the requirements of the law."
Safety experts say that a major problem all along has been that many operators didn't want to spend a lot of money on one new system, only to be told that soon afterward that a newer technology is available and they have to buy it. When the Bush administration in 2004 refused to require text-messaging devices that was part of its rationale.
O'Dell said the UMW "was concerned that the industry practice of addressing the immediate situation and ignoring the potential for future improvements would severely limit the effectiveness of the legislation.
"The practice of simply complying with the intent of a regulation in an effort to avoid a citation does not drive operators to demand better technology for the future from manufacturers," O'Dell said.
O'Dell said that some operators, such as Jim Walter Resources, are already in the process of replacing systems installed after implementation of the MINER Act with another new, more innovative system.
"[MSHA] is charged with ensuring each mine operator initiative 'improved accident preparedness and response' on a 'continuing basis,'" O'Dell said.
Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kw...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.